The Weekend Takeaway
When the A’s boarded their flight to New York last Sunday, they’d lost back-to-back games just once since the end of May. But after the Mets served them their second losing streak of the month with a 10-1 beating in the first contest of a nine-game road trip, it seemed that Bob Melvin’s squad might take a small stumble as it reached the halfway mark of the regular season on the Atlantic seaboard.
Since then, the Athletics have rattled off four straight victories and improved their road record to 27-15. Sunday’s game was no. 81 of the season for Oakland, and with 50 percent of the year in the books, the A’s are still rocking a league-best .630 winning percentage—to go with a +135 run differential that suggests they should be three games better than their 51-30 ledger.
Even a frustrating injury—fresh off the disabled list and hitting well, Josh Reddick re-strained his knee in Saturday’s 14-inning win—couldn’t prevent the Athletics from bringing the brooms to Marlins Park. The A’s put Reddick back on the disabled list before Sunday’s finale and called up Nate Freiman, who performed adequately in a short-end platoon role last year but ceded his job to the more-versatile Alberto Callaspo in the offseason and was buried further down the depth chart by the acquisition of Kyle Blanks.
Freiman earned another shot in The Show by clubbing 14 homers in 76 games for Triple-A Sacramento, sizzling just as Blanks hit the disabled list with a calf strain. Skepticism about power numbers in the Pacific Coast League notwithstanding, it’s notable that six of Freiman’s big flies had come in the River Cats’ home yard, one of the few parks in the circuit that favors pitchers.
A Rule Five Draft selection in December 2012, Freiman came to the Athletics from the Padres by way of the Astros. He’d performed well in Double-A, but with his age ticking toward 30 and questions lurking about his power utility despite his 6-foot-8, 250-pound stature, Freiman was running out of time to earn a chance in the majors. The Duke product put up a .288 True Average versus left-handed pitching in 2013, which might seem like a nice output from a player making the league minimum, but for a first baseman with limited skills beyond the batting average, it was merely replacement-level (0.1 WARP) production.
That’s why Freiman couldn’t crack the loaded A’s roster out of spring training. For Melvin, who treasures individual versatility because it enables team versatility and maximizes the club’s potential to seize platoon advantages, Freiman wasn’t a sufficiently valuable chess piece when it came time to pare down to 25.
He was, however, a fine hitter to have a phone call away, with rookie left-hander Andrew Heaney due to toe the rubber for the Marlins:
That three-run blast turned a 1-1 tie into a 4-1 A’s lead on Sunday, which ultimately became a 4-3 win. Freiman slugged only four homers in 208 big-league plate appearances last year, but he packed his Triple-A thump for the trip to Miami. And while that might be a fluke, there’s reason to wonder if it’s the fruit of an adjustment he made in the box.
Here’s Freiman last August 15, getting ready to chop an opposite-field double in a game in which he went 4-for-4:
That stance worked well enough in 2013, but Freiman lost his job and scuffled to a .204/.282/.312 triple-slash line in April. Here’s Freiman yesterday:
If Freiman’s last name hadn’t been printed on his jersey, you might not have recognized him as the same player. He stood more upright, with his feet closer together and his hands far lower. If you watch the embedded clip of the homer and compare it to the linked one of the double, you’ll also notice that his hands are looser and quieter.
First basemen need to be able to drive pitches left out over the plate. But Freiman had only two clear power alleys last season: down and in, and middle-middle.
Come back to his home run off of Heaney:
The pitch is mid-thigh and right down Broadway. Freiman’s ISO in that location a year ago was just .053. One swing does not a breakout make, but it’s encouraging to see early results from an apparent adjustment. If nothing else, it’s something to monitor going forward—as long as Reddick and Blanks are on the shelf and Freiman is seeing playing time in their stead.
And that’s the key point: Beane has assembled one of the deepest rosters in the majors, giving Melvin a ready substitute for virtually every position player and pitcher.
The A’s are 12-4 behind converted reliever Jesse Chavez and 2-0 behind dollar-store plug-in Brad Mills. Jed Lowrie, a 3.7-WARP contributor at shortstop last year, has a .237 TAv, but the A’s sat atop the American League with a .273 mark as a team entering yesterday’s finale. Reddick, a plus defender, has played in just 54 of 81 games; despite his absence, the A’s led the circuit in park-adjusted defensive efficiency when they took the field on Sunday.
That’s why Oakland is a league-best 51-30.
A three-game trip to Detroit, a four-game home set with Toronto, and a four-game home-and-home battle with the cross-bay rival Giants will test the A’s mettle against other contenders before the All-Star break. But as the second half begins, there’s more good news on the horizon: The Athletics’ summer travel schedule is among the league’s friendliest.
When the current road trip ends with Wednesday’s matinee at Comerica Park, Oakland will play just three more games in the Eastern Time zone (at Atlanta, August 15-17) before the season is out.
Quick Hits from the Weekend
In the middle match of that series with the Athletics, the Marlins did something that no other team has been able to do since April 26: Score a run off of A’s closer Sean Doolittle. Unfortunately, as a result of that, the Fish wound up suffering a fate so cruel that no major league team had ever suffered it before.
Melvin handed the left-hander the ball with a 6-5 lead in the ninth, and Doolittle promptly fanned Jeff Baker. Then Giancarlo Stanton doubled and Casey McGehee singled. Stanton crossed the plate on McGehee’s knock, saddling Doolittle with his second blown save of the season.
The game would drag on until the 14th, with Jim Johnson working into and out of trouble in the 12th and 13th. In the top of the 14th, the A’s got to Jacob Turner on a double by Brandon Moss and a single by Josh Donaldson, and Francis protected the 7-6 margin for his first career save. And as the Marlins lost for the 12th time in 17 games, they did a whole lot of extra work for no gain:
Marlins are first team in MLB history to lose five-or-more 13+ inning games in a calendar month (via @EliasSports)
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 29, 2014
More fruitless extra work, in fact, that any team has ever done in a 30-day span.
While Doolittle has been nearly automatic over the last two months, Giants closer Sergio Romo has been anything but. And while the A’s have withstood injuries and slumps, the Giants have wilted, with Angel Pagan joining Brandon Belt on the disabled list and their two-out hitting magic wearing off.
On Wednesday, Tim Lincecum no-hit the Padres to become just the second pitcher in major league history to so thoroughly baffle the same opponent twice. On Sunday, Homer Bailey—who delivered a no-no against the Giants on July 2, 2013—had one intact with two away in the seventh before Buster Posey and Pablo Sandoval notched back-to-back singles.
The Giants wouldn’t score in the inning—or in any inning on Sunday, a 4-0 defeat that capped a four-game sweep. With it, the Reds became the first team ever to take four of four from the Giants in AT&T Park:
The last time the Giants were swept in a 4-game series at home was September, 1996 by the Pirates. #SFGStats
— Bill Arnold (@sfgwire) June 29, 2014
Were the 2013 version of Romo available to manager Bruce Bochy in the ninth inning of Saturday’s contest, the Giants might have averted the brooms. But with a 1-0 lead resting on his right shoulder, Romo walked Jay Bruce and left a slider over the heart of the plate for Brandon Phillips. The second baseman walloped it out to left-center field, turning the one-run edge into a one-run deficit…
Last year Sergio Romo threw 506 sliders &1 got taken deep. This year? Five HRs/244. And he's out as Giants closer: http://t.co/xPvCVqf9SM
— Andrew Baggarly (@CSNBaggs) June 29, 2014
…and leading Bochy to demote Romo from the ninth-inning role in favor of a matchup-based committee.
The Giants countered with a run off of Aroldis Chapman, but were they able to plate another with runners at second and third and nobody out, they would’ve walked off with a win. Instead, the game continued until the 11th, when the Reds scored five times against Javier Lopez and Jean Machi.
The right-hander came into the series with just one earned run allowed all season, but the Reds quintupled that total in a span of three days, shooting Machi’s ERA up from 0.29 to 1.36.
By sweeping the Giants, the Reds jumped percentage points ahead of the Cardinals for second place in the National League Central. St. Louis fell 6-0 to the Dodgers on Sunday, which brought Los Angeles to within percentage points of the Giants for first place in the West.
San Francisco has dropped 15 of 19 since June 8 to give away all but an iota of what once was a 9 ½-game division lead. The Giants will welcome the Cardinals—who’ve lost seven of 12 to fall a season-high 6 ½ games behind the Brewers—to AT&T Park on Tuesday for a three-game tilt in which one team will stem the tide while deepening the other’s plunge.
Here’s a complete list of Rays who’ve collected five hits and two home runs in the same game: Matt Joyce.
That’s it, just one. And it was zero until Sunday’s series finale with the Orioles, in which the Rays reached double-digit runs in a nine-inning game for the first time since April 19.
Tampa Bay jumped on Baltimore starter Miguel Gonzalez from the get-go. Desmond Jennings walked. Ben Zobrist—who chipped in a pair of two-baggers and a long ball of his own—doubled, and it was 1-0 Rays. Joyce’s first-inning double, which immediately followed Zobrist’s, did not lead to a run.
Eager to touch home plate himself, Joyce whacked a solo shot with one away in the third:
He singled in the fifth, when the Rays left the bases loaded, then singled home a run and scored in the sixth, when the Rays batted around and plated seven runs. Joe Maddon’s offense had produced seven runs in a game just once since May 26, but it took all of that frustration out on Evan Meek and Brian Matusz to break the contest wide open.
The last time the Rays slugged five dingers in one day was in the aforementioned 16-1 drubbing of the Yankees on April 19. The time before that, Johnny Damon, Casey Kotchman, and Kelly Shoppach were on the team.
On the strength of that power display, the Rays took three of four from the Orioles. It was Tampa Bay’s second series win on the road since May 12-14 at Seattle and its first against a foe other than the Astros over that one-and-a-half-month span.
But they couldn't get him out. Harrison escaped, got to third, and—in case he’d been retired—gave Polanco time to get to second with some of the niftiest baserunning you’ll see this year.
Much to the third baseman’s chagrin, none of the next four batters could bring him home with the winning run. Travis Snider and Neil Walker bookended an intentional walk to Andrew McCutchen with unproductive strikeouts. Russell Martin flied out to end the inning.
An inning later, Harrison took matters into his own hands.
His double brought home Barmes and sent the PNC Park crowd home happy with a 3-2 win on the heels of a 5-2 victory in the opener. The sides split the weekend pair, giving Pittsburgh three of four in the series and seven wins in its last nine games.
Harrison went 1-for-4 with a double on Sunday to bring his triple-slash line for the season to .306/.345/.466. With appearances at five different positions, Harrison, who turns 26 on July 8, has been a sneakily valuable Swiss Army knife (1.9 WARP) for Hurdle and the Pirates. Among position players, only McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez have done more to further Pittsburgh’s cause this year.
Jose Altuve batted .343 in the Venezuelan Summer League in 2008, .324 at Rookie-level Greeneville in 2009, .308 at Low-A Lexington in 2010, .408 at High-A Lancaster in 2011, and .361 at Double-A Corpus Christi that same year. In his first two full years in the majors, however, the diminutive second baseman couldn't crack .300.
Now, Altuve is in year three as the Astros’ full-time keystoner. And the third time appears to be the charm.
The Maracay native was a pest to the Tigers all weekend, as Houston halted Detroit’s seven-game winning streak by taking two of three at Minute Maid Park. Altuve went 4-for-5 with a double and two stolen bases on Friday. He followed that up with two hits and two steals on Saturday. And in Sunday’s rubber match, taken by the Astros 6-4, Altuve went 3-for-5 with a two-bagger and two more thefts.
All of that came on the heels of a 2-for-4, two-SB effort in the series finale against the Braves on Thursday.
If collecting two-plus hits and two-plus steals in four straight games seems like a rare feat, that’s because it is:
Altuve is first big leaguer in at least 100 years to have four straight games with at least two hits and two steals.
— Freep Tigers (@freeptigers) June 29, 2014
No one else has done it in a century. And only one other player, Ray Chapman in 1917, has so much as stolen two-or-more bases in four consecutive contests, leaving aside the hits criterion altogether.
Riding one of the most impressive hot streaks in the bigs—both at the plate and on the basepaths—Altuve is now batting .347/.386/.452 on the year with 36 swipes in 39 tries. He’s 15 points clear of runner-up Adrian Beltre in the American League batting title race. And among the majors’ troika of 30-plus-bag thieves, Altuve (92.3 percent) has been by far the most efficient (Dee Gordon 83.3 percent, Billy Hamilton 75.6 percent).
Clayton Kershaw couldn’t quite pull off the Johnny Vander Meer, but six days after he no-hit the Rockies, the left-hander tossed eight shutout innings at Kauffman Stadium. As if that weren’t enough, on Sunday, Kershaw fanned 13 Cardinals over seven scoreless frames.
The slider that served the defending National League Cy Young Award winner so well versus Colorado was on fire again in the series finale against St. Louis. He spun it 31 times, 20 of them for strikes, half of those of the whiff variety. The Cardinals put it in play only once—for an out—and they couldn’t touch his curveball, either.
That ought not come as much of a surprise, considering that Mike Matheny’s offense entered Sunday’s battle with a lowly .239/.315/.360 triple-slash mark when facing southpaws. But by punching out a baker’s dozen, Kershaw went in June where no Dodger has gone in nearly half a century:
Clayton Kershaw's 61 strikeouts in June were the most by any Dodgers pitcher in any month since Sandy Koufax (62) in June of 1966.
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 30, 2014
The 26-year-old’s outing wasn’t spotless—he issued two walks for the first time since May 23—but that scarcely took away from his dominance. Kershaw’s ERA is down to 2.04, and his K:BB ratio now stands at 107:11 through 12 starts following a stint on the disabled list. Only five National Leaguers can currently boast more strikeouts, but none of them has walked fewer than 20 batters. And none of them has toed the rubber fewer than 17 times.
R.A. Dickey took the road less traveled to becoming an established big-league starter. Along the way, he became the first pitcher since World War II to serve up six home runs in fewer than four innings of work. But in the eight years following that pounding at the hands of the Tigers, the knuckleballer hadn’t been forced to crane his neck and watch a long ball fly more than three times in any outing.
The game plan against a knuckleballer is usually “if it’s high, let it fly,” but the White Sox had no trouble drilling knee-high slow stuff from Dickey. Jose Abreu took the right-hander yard twice…
…once to left and once just to the right of dead center. In between those, Dayan Viciedo launched an oppo taco:
And in the seventh inning, Alexei Ramirez served dessert:
That two-run bomb put the nail in the Jays’ coffin in game one, rendering the two runs they scored off of Ronald Belisario in the ninth inning insufficient. Dickey recorded his 1,000th career strikeout in the 5-4 defeat.
The White Sox would go on to win Saturday’s middle match 4-3 and Sunday’s finale in shutout fashion, 4-0, to take three of four from the Jays.
Red Sox-Yankees showdowns are almost always eventful. The past weekend in the Bronx was no exception.
After the Bombers took the opener 6-0 on the strength of 5 2/3 scoreless inning by Vidal Nuno and homers by Kelly Johnson, Brett Gardner, and Brian McCann, the Red Sox bounced back to set up a rubber match by downing Masahiro Tanaka on Saturday. Game two of three was tied heading into the ninth, when Mike Napoli untied it:
Rather than a slider or splitter, Tanaka opted for a 1-2 fastball to Napoli, and the 96-mph cheese wasn’t sharp enough to get by the first baseman’s bat. Napoli sent it just over the wall in right field to put Boston ahead 2-1. Then, on his way into the dugout, he appeared to say, “What an idiot?” referring to Tanaka:
Tweeps pointed out post-game that our cameras caught Napoli saying, "What an idiot," after hitting home run on fastball off Tanaka…
— Ken Rosenthal (@Ken_Rosenthal) June 29, 2014
Napoli told FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal it was nothing personal, just a comment on the peculiar pitch selection that gave the right-handed slugger a pitch he could handle. ESPN’s Buster Olney heard the same, only there was a bit more to it:
Napoli/idiot comment: business, not personal. Before Sat., Tanaka told Uehara to not bother donning spikes, because there wouldn't be a save
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) June 30, 2014
Thanks to Napoli, there was, indeed, a save for Uehara in that one. And Tanaka’s countryman picked up another in Sunday’s 8-5 Red Sox win, in which David Ortiz slugged his 450th career home run.
The Defensive Play of the Weekend
The Tigers had the bases loaded, two away, and Ian Kinsler facing a full count in the seventh inning of Saturday’s middle match (which ended up a 4-3 Tigers win). Kinsler made a strong bid to give the visitors the lead with a two-run single. L.J. Hoes wasn’t impressed:
Bonus: The Defensive Play of the Weekend By a Non-Player
The Phillies’ advance scouts had their broadcast team perfectly positioned to catch this three-run blast off the bat of Freddie Freeman:
What to Watch on Monday
- Bryce Harper slammed three home runs for Double-A Harrisburg on Saturday, which seems like a pretty good way of telling the Nationals’ decision-makers that he’s ready to be activated from the disabled list. Sure enough, he’s expected to be in the starting lineup for tonight’s game against the Rockies. Assuming that happens, Harper will take his first big-league hacks since April 25 against rookie lefty Yohan Flande. The Nats will counter with Jordan Zimmermann (7:05 p.m. ET).
- The Orioles knocked Joe Saunders around for 10 hits in six innings on June 3, but they came away with only two runs against the lefty before teeing off on the Texas bullpen. As a result, Saunders remains unbeaten versus the O’s in 10 career starts. Now, Buck Showalter’s squad is set to welcome the Rangers to Camden Yards for a four-game series in which the southpaw is scheduled to pitch the opener. The 33-year-old carries a mediocre 20-to-18 K:BB ratio into the outing and has allowed 53 hits in just 34 2/3 innings of work this year. He’ll take on Ubaldo Jimenez, whose 53 walks represent the highest total in the majors (7:05 p.m. ET).
- Just days after notching the first complete-game shutout of his career—a three-hitter over the Marlins—Zack Wheeler turned in his worst clunker, a two-inning, six-run beating at the hands of the A’s. To right the ship, he’ll need to conquer a Braves lineup that dropped a combined seven runs in 11 innings on his line in two April starts. The Braves will roll with Mike Minor in the series opener at Turner Field, as the southpaw attempts to shake off the gopher-ball woes that have plagued him of late. Minor has served up five homers in his last four starts, raising his total for the season to 11 in 66 innings (7:10 p.m. ET).
- Mat Latos has faced the Padres twice since he was traded to the Reds, and while he pitched well on both occasions, Cincinnati wound up on the losing end of the tilts. The right-hander has allowed two total runs over 13 innings of work against the club that drafted him in the 11th round in 2006. Tonight, he’ll square off with Jesse Hahn, a 24-year-old who’s flashed electric stuff in his first four big-league starts. Hahn has notched 27 strikeouts in 22 2/3 innings to date, including a season-high eight in a win over the Giants on June 24 (10:10 p.m. ET).